Redistricting commission gives itself 7% pay increases despite $1.2M shortfall

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission voted on Thursday to give its 13 members a 7% pay raise, an increase that the members framed as a cost of living adjustment in line with inflation. 

The increase, approved 8-3, boosts commissioner pay from about $55,000 to about $59,000. The vote comes as their work begins to taper off and the commission faces a $1.2 million shortfall through the remaining fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The commission said its pay raise, estimated to total about $32,000 through the end of the fiscal year, will be covered by the more than $100,000 in savings realized with the departure of their general counsel, who submitted her resignation last month and whose last meeting was Thursday.

Commissioners M.C. Rothhorn, left, and Steven Lett, right, cast a procedural vote at the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission meeting in Lansing on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. On Thursday, the commission voted 8-3 to approve 7% raises for all 13 commissioners.

"By failing to increase the salaries we're effectively reducing our salaries because of the inflation rate," said Chairwoman Rebecca Szetela, an non-affiliated member of the commission. 

Commission member Doug Clark voted against the increase, citing the commission's main task — drawing new voting districts for the state House, Senate and Congress — was complete at this time.

"I don't believe that we should have a salary increase based on our workload diminishing at this time," he said. "I don't think it's the prudent thing to do at this point."

Clark, a Republican, was joined in opposing the pay increase by Commissioner Cynthia Orton, a Republican, and Commissioner Richard Weiss, a non-affiliated member of the commission. Republican members Erin Wagner and Rhonda Lange were not present for the vote. 

The 13-member commission is seeking a legal opinion on when the duties of commission members expire and how their pay should be handled moving forward. While the commission's maps are complete, they still are completing final reports on their work and are facing two lawsuits challenging the maps. 

At any point in the next 10 years, the maps could face additional challenges in court potentially leading to a court order for the commission to redraw the maps, at which point the commission would need to reconvene.

The constitutional language that created the commission appears unclear about how long their pay should continue. It requires each commissioner's salary be at least 25% of the governor's salary, or $39,825, and that their terms last through a "census cycle." The language requires the Legislature to fund the commission for "each year the commission operates."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not include funding for the commission in her proposed budget, which begins Oct. 1. 

The commission also is exploring ways to approach the GOP-led Legislature for more money. The commission faces a $1.2 million shortfall based on their "best guess" of ongoing legal costs for the defense of its maps. 

Through January alone, the commission spent $477,000 on litigation and local counsel to defend the commission and its maps in court. 

"We are in active conversation on how best to approach the Legislature in requesting these funds," said Executive Director Suann Hammersmith. 

The Senate would consider "any legitimate expenses," said Matt Sweeney, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

"But commissioners giving themselves pay raises at taxpayer expense isn’t likely to fall into that category," he said.

Rep. Greg VanWoerkom, the Norton Shores Republican who chairs the Appropriations General Government Subcommittee, was critical of the commission. 

"What job do you know where you vote for your own pay increase even when your work is done?" VanWoerkom said in a Thursday statement. "Already running a deficit, the Legislature and taxpayers will have plenty of questions should they come asking for more funding.”

The commission has come under fire for the pay raises and a roughly $50,000 expenditure for the production of a "lessons learned" documentary on their work. 

On Thursday, the commission disclosed it's spent roughly $48,000 on public opinion polling regarding the commission's work and name recognition among Michigan voters. The commission said the purpose of the polling was to inform the work of current and future commissions. 

The polling released Thursday found 41% of respondents had heard "something" about the 2018 constitutional amendment changing Michigan's redistricting process, a figure that dropped nearly 12 percentage points from a baseline assessment in March 2021. The survey of 600 likely Michigan voters was conducted Feb. 11-14 by the Glengariff Group and had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. The initial baseline survey was conducted March 27-31, 2021. 

Additionally, the survey found 35% of those contacted had heard of Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and 66% of Michigan voters said the state should continue using an independent commission to redraw its political lines every 10 years.

"One of the things moving forward for any commission to realize is they need to have realistic expectations about the difficulty of engaging the voters across the state," said pollster Richard Czuba. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com